Tuesday, March 10, 2015


It's been a while since I last posted, but I felt compelled, given the current state of education in Arizona, to share how I'm reacting to the multitude of challenges we face.

Friday was a full moon, the day before spring break, and the last day of benchmark testing. We had just learned we are going to a four day week next year and one of our elementary schools is closing. Kids were not in the mood to be testing and many tried less than we would hope. I heard many teachers express frustration, defeat. We were all feeling a little unappreciated.

And then in the middle of the night, Governor Ducey and our state legislature passed a devastating budget that cuts our district's budget by an additional $600,000 (on top of the $2.7 million deficit we already face due to our override not passing). The budget also cuts 100% of funding to community colleges and many cuts to our state universities. In short, we pro-education, pro-child people felt defeated. My husband and I spent all day Saturday reeling with anger or crushed with sadness. I wanted to jump into action, but where do we begin?

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In addition to raising my voice and expressing my opinions to those in government and doing my part to help my district and students prepare for next year's changes, I have an immediate plan to boost my own mood.

I am going to rock in my classroom. I am going to go back after spring break with some engaging, amazing activities for my kids. My alt-ed junior high students are not in the school mode this time of year, so I need to hook them back in. No matter what's going on outside my classroom, I owe it to my kids to be the best I can be. Remember - we make the weather in the classroom. If the kids are acting frustrating, we are the ones with the power to change it.

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I'm going to get my kids' butts out of their seats and their heads back in the game. We're going to do a gallery walk instead of just sitting down to read texts. Instead of a worksheet, we're going to do Think Dots (a strategy where students roll dice to determine which questions they will discuss from a set of cards I give them on a ring). Instead of writing down vocabulary definitions, kids will choose between making digital or actual flashcards and then play a card game in which they match definitions, words, and examples*.

I'm going to have kids collaborate and make choices. I'm going to hold them accountable and make sure they all learn. I'm going to differentiate, engage, and mix it up. Will it be more prep? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. In the past, when I've spent more time preparing for engaging lessons, I've seen that the kids and I are happier. They learn more, perform better on formative assessments, and can move on more quickly. Sometimes my ideas flop, but that's ok. My kids know we're in this together and we all make mistakes. What matters is that my kids will see that I am trying, that I have a positive attitude, that I believe they can achieve.
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How are you going to kick butt in your classroom next week? Please comment below! We all learn together.
*I learned about Triplets and Think Dots from Dr. Nanci Smith at the AZ K12 Center. She's amazing. The K12 Center is amazing. I highly recommend checking them out.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Teaching Boys

For the last five years, I've taught mostly boys. I'm also the only woman in the house at home. Here's a few things I've learned about the male species during youth, how they learn, and what helps them thrive. These tips can work great for girls, too. I may be stereotyping a little, but I do see differences between the two genders, so forgive me.

Drink water. When girls are upset, we cry. Boys are told that's not ok (which I totally disagree with), but they still need the release. A big glass of water can go a long way with a boy who is frustrated or emotional.

Time. Another thing boys need when they are upset is a cooling off period. We women can't expect boys/sons/students or grown men/husbands to be ready to talk about it right away. They need time and we need to back off.

Different perceptions. This is tough, but in the real world, boys are judged harshly. I teach my boys that even if a girl gets in your face and yells at you, if you yell back, you're more likely to be the one to get in trouble. It isn't right, but boys are judged more harshly for things like this. They are more likely to get in trouble, drop out, get arrested, etc. They need to know that they will be seen through this societal lens that presumes male guilt and be careful to avoid trouble.

Stay calm. When they mess up, stay calm. Let them know you care about what they are feeling. Yelling at them will only make them react with more frustration. This is easier said than done and goes for boys and girls.

Listen. The stereotype may be that girls talk more, but that doesn't mean boys don't need someone to listen, too. The difference here is that boys especially need to know they will not be judged before the vent and they often don't want to do it in front of a crowd. Allowing for a little one-on-one time between classes or pulling a boy aside can help them open up a lot. Also, validating their feelings by saying things like "no wonder you're frustrated with all that going on" makes them feel more comfortable.

Be up front. This goes with listening. Boys want to know what's going to happen. Will you tell my mom if...? Tell them right away what you have to report and what you don't so they can decide what they would like to share.

Move around. Teenage boys have a lot of energy. We all know that. We teachers need to remember that a 2 minute break is not going to wreck our curriculum calendar. If they look restless or bored, get them to move around. I like this video for a dance break (yes, boys will dance) and my husband does yoga brain breaks.

Action! In addition to moving around, boys like to hear about action. In history, play up the battle scenes. In reading, choose books with action. They love it!

Non-Fiction. In my experience, boys tend to like realistic fiction, historical fiction, or non-fiction texts. Learning about how to do something (build a robot) or how to something works (hurricanes, maybe) is fun and relevant.

Laughter. All kids need to laugh. Let them. Plan for it as part of your class time. It softens the tension, puts people at ease, helps us build relationships. Again, this is not a waste of time. It makes life and learning fun.

What would you add to this list? Are there any tricks that help teachers relate to female students in a unique way? Please comment below!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Listening to students

Shane Safir recently wrote an article for Edutopia on "Becoming a Listening Educator." In it, she outlines "four traits of the listening educator." 

I have always believed that it is crucial for every student to have "a person" at school whom they feel they can go to with whatever they need. On my small campus, we teachers talk a lot about who they feel sees us as that "person" so we can make sure no one is left out. Sometimes, there are kids nobody really likes (terrible, but true) and those are usually the kids who need a "person" the most.

So how can I be that person? With some kids, it's easy. We click. We like the same TV show or music. We have some connection. With others, it feels darn-near impossible. It is for those kids, we need to practice the traits Safir discusses. First and foremost, we need to ask questions.

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What did you have for dinner last night?
  • Have you ever __________?
  • Did you hear about (recent news story)? What did you think about that?
These types of basic, simple questions help us build relationships and open the door for kids to talk about deeper things. When kids are talking, we need to stop and listen. 

Seriously. Stop. Stop looking at your computer. Stop passing out the mindset. Just stop. Look at the kid talking and listen.

I teach these kinds of listening social skills to kids who really need to learn them and it has made me realize that teachers can be terrible models of good listening skills. But we can fix that. We can slow down. We can stop. 

Safir asked me in a comment on Edutopia, "What has to "give" so that we can listen to and grow to know every child? How can we release ourselves from the tyranny of tasks to simply show up and listen to students, parents, and colleagues alike?"

I have been wrestling with this question and I think this is the answer:

Recently, I had a student become visibly frustrated when I asked him to make some changes on a formative assessment he'd taken. I asked him what was frustrating him. He bravely, calmly, maturely asked if he could talk to me about it after class. Instead of pushing it and forcing him to fix his errors right this minute, I respected his wishes and waited. 

After class, he, a student who rarely speaks up, unleashed the details of some big family issues. With tears rolling down his nearly-grown-up face, he told me that it felt "so good to just talk about it" because he "hasn't felt like he could talk to anybody." 

This wasn't the kind of thing that needed to be reported to CPS or administration. It was the kind of thing that just feels huge when you're 14. He just needed a person to listen.

I now feel confident that I could get this kid to do any massive amount of challenging work because he knows I am here for him. He knows I believe in him. He knows I will listen. 

So, that's how I convince myself that it is worth my time to listen. This kid will work. He will not blow things off. I won't need to spend whole class periods nagging him to do his work. 

Now, I live in the real world. I know that just because I've connected doesn't mean he will always stay on task, but it sure helps a whole lot. Trust me. 

This is a cultural shift but it's we teachers that need convincing. Investing time in kids is more valuable than investing time in curriculum or planning or grading or whatever other tasks we have to do. It saves time in the long run. And afterall, it is the whole point to what we do, isn't it? 

What do you think? Are there other ways we could make time to listen?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

10 Tips for Staying Sane When It Seems Like Everything is Changing

Cha, Cha, Cha, Cha, Changes... I think I like David Bowie's song better than I actually like change. Most of us aren't big fans of change. In education, things are certainly changing.

It's easy to get overwhelmed as a teacher. Kids change. Standards change. Administration can change. We can be moved to a new subject or grade level. We are being asked to do more and more. High-stakes testing is raising the stakes for us by involving scores in our evaluations. There's a lot going on.

My district has had an override fail, so we know more changes are coming. We are implementing relatively new College and Career Readiness Standards and we've implemented Beyond Textbooks this year. I'm seeing my colleagues (myself included) feeling more and more overwhelmed about work, so how can we chill out especially during this busy holiday season?

  1. Remember, there's a change curve. Give yourself a little break. Things aren't going to be perfect. It takes hard work and time for changes to take effect. Try to be patient and go easy on yourself, your colleagues, and your students.
  2. Set realistic goals and refer to them frequently. My principal had me write down three simple goals for the year. I refer to them daily and prioritize my to-do list according to those goals. Having realistic goals is important (see #1).
  3. Stay Organized. This is the toughest one for me. I'm not naturally organized and I really have to work at it. But I know that if I let grading and clutter pile up, I'm going to be more stressed.
  4. Collaborate. It's hard coming up with new ideas for new standards and new expectations. Bounce ideas around with a colleague and see if you can divide up some of the work load if possible. 
  5. Have fun! Teaching is about kids. Lighten up and smile and laugh. It's good for the kids and good for you. If you "waste" 5 minutes of class joking around and laughing, you've probably saved 5 minutes of redirecting grumpy kids. Build relationships with your students and enjoy your time with them.
  6. Be positive. Complaining about change won't stop it. Putting off complying with new expectations can only hurt you and your students. I'm being a little tough and frank here, but I am speaking about our own personal happiness about work. If you want to be less stressed, try to avoid complaining and procrastinating
  7. When possible (and I know it isn't always), leave work at work or at least designate time at home for work and time at home for family, friends, hobbies, and leisure. You need to still have a life outside of work or work will consume you.
  8. Relax. Drink some tea or coffee. Listen to music. Take a few breaths of fresh air on your prep hour. Try to stop and smell the roses even while you're at work. 
  9. Be humble. I don't know what it is about us teachers but we are fiercely independent and often hate to ask for help. If you are struggling with something, ask a colleague for help. 
  10. Last but definitely not least... Go with the flow. The world of education has become a world of constant change. Gone are the days when we could use the same lesson plans year after year. We need to accept that this is the way it is and just go with it. 

What would you add? What helps you stay calm when you're feeling overwhelmed? Please comment below. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Building a Positive Peer Culture

In my previous post on ways to prevent students from dropping out, I focused on teacher connectedness. Now, I'd like to highlight another research-based method to keep kids engaged in school - a positive peer culture.

Sometimes, kids are mean, even cruel and it's hard as a teacher, because there is so much they don't know about the power of their words and actions. We have to teach the kids we have (not the kids we wish we had) in ways appropriate to their own emotional maturity how to be kind to others. Yes, this is a parental responsibility, but we have a responsibility, too.

Some of my students are tough. They've been through a lot. Others are vulnerable because they've been through a lot too. So, believe me when I say that I get how hard this is, but we have to try.

Ways to Build a Positive Peer Culture

  • Be the biggest weirdo in the room. If I'm goofy and silly and make mistakes, then kids feel comfortable being weird, because they know that they'll never be the weirdest.
  • Lighten up. Let kids joke around, but make it clear that there is a line. If you come down hard on kids for every little thing, your life lessons lose some of their meaning. 
  • Don't force it. My husband does yoga with his kids for brain breaks. I know another teacher who has a corny joke of the day. Do what fits your personality. Be yourself
  • Have the occasional off-topic conversation. Kids start to feel comfortable around each other because they talk to each other, not because they sat and listened to the teacher all day. 
  • Have kids write affirmations for each other, but model how it's done. My kids' attendance tends to be spotty at the end of the year, so I like to pull one name a day and say what I'd like to say to them on the last day of school. (Tip: collect the notes students write for each other and screen them before giving them to the recipient just in case)
  • Have fun. Make it an experience to be in your class. Sometimes, any class can be a little boring, but it doesn't have to be that way all the time. Take every opportunity to make something fun. You'll get better results. 
This year, I started the year by asking the kids what kind of teacher they want, an idea from Teaching and Learning Together. I made a poster and hung it by my desk to remind me.

A special thank you to my husband for his contributions to this post. 

What would you add? What do you do in your class that builds a positive peer culture? Please share in the comments below!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My 2014 Edublog Nominations

I am admittedly biased here because I am married to the talented teacher behind the amazing kids who create the Cougar News Blog.

However, since they won the Edublog Award for best class blog last year, I'm not the only one who thinks these kids are fantastic!

So I am happy to nominate the Cougar News Blog again this year.

The quality of student writing on this blog is superb. It is about students, for students, and by students. Think "school newspaper" in blog form.

I strongly recommend you nominate them, too! 

I also voted for Wwatanabe for best Ed Tech blog. Check her out. She's fabulous!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dropout Prevention

I did my big culminating research project for grad school on dropout prevention and here's what I learned in a nutshell. I could go on about who is likely to drop out and what happens to them if they do, but let's assume you get that it's really important to keep kids in school and go from there.

The Top 5 ways to prevent kids from dropping out are...
1.Engaging Curriculum
2.Teacher Connectedness

3.Positive Peer Culture
4.Truancy Prevention
5.Parent Support

Notice anything? Three of the five are things we can actually impact as teachers! We control how engaging the curriculum is, how well we communicate that we care, and the culture we create in our classrooms.

Let's focus on teacher connectedness.

Here's the problem - most teachers really care about their students, but that is NOT ENOUGH. Kids need to know it! So we need to show them we care in ways they understand. 

Here are 5 research-based, effective ways to show we care:

  1. Call parents and say nice things about their kids!
  2. Have impromptu conversations with kids daily 
  3. Set goals with kids and hold them to those goals. Revisit them frequently.
  4. Make the environment welcoming. This means a comfortable classroom and a positive peer culture.
  5. HIDE IT when the kids get on your nerves! All those groans and eye rolls say "you are annoying" and "I wish I didn't have to deal with you." They can crush kids.
I implemented these religiously and documented it and student achievement increased in my classroom. You may think you do these things, but tracking it and holding yourself accountable, makes you do it more.

What would you add to this list? How can we SHOW kids we care? Which of these is easier said than done? Please comment below!

Part 2 of this series... Creating a positive peer culture!

For the full paper and references, click here